Posted on February 21, 2011

Backers Making Another Run at Pardon for Boxer

Frederic J. Frommer, Comcast News, February 21. 2011

Lawmakers are going another round in their fight to get a posthumous presidential pardon for the world’s first black heavyweight champion, who was imprisoned nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties with a white woman.

New York Rep. Peter King and Arizona Sen. John McCain, both Republicans, plan to reintroduce a congressional resolution urging a pardon for boxer Jack Johnson. Another supporter, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said he will talk to President Barack Obama’s new chief of staff, William Daley, and Attorney General Eric Holder about the cause.


Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion a century before Obama was elected the nation’s first black president. The boxer’s flamboyant lifestyle and his relationships with white women inflamed white sensibilities. Racial resentment boiled over after he defeated a white boxer in the “Fight of the Century” 100 years ago last summer. Three years later, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes.


King said he was surprised that Obama didn’t act during the last session of Congress, when the House and Senate passed the resolution. But the congressman said he’s still optimistic.


“This is about righting a wrong,” she [one of Johnson’s great-great nieces, Constance Hines] said


In their efforts to prosecute Johnson, authorities first targeted Johnson’s relationship with Lucille Cameron, who later became his wife, but she refused to cooperate. They then found another white witness, Belle Schreiber, to testify against him. Johnson fled the country after his conviction, but agreed years later to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence.

In his 2005 documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” filmmaker Burns explored the case against Johnson and the sentencing judge’s admitted desire to “send a message” to black men about relationships with white women. Burns helped to form the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which filed a petition with the Justice Department in 2004. {snip}

The effort went nowhere during the Bush administration. Burns, McCain and King revived it in 2009, confident that Obama would act on the request–especially after the resolution passed both houses of Congress for the first time.


Johnson won the world championship on Dec. 26, 1908. Police in Australia stopped Johnson’s fight against the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns, in the 14th-round, leading to a search for a “Great White Hope” who could beat Johnson.

Two years later, Jim Jeffries, the American world titleholder Johnson had tried to fight for years, came out of retirement to challenge Johnson for the championship in a 45-round “Fight of the Century.” They squared off on a scorching Independence Day in Reno, Nev., at a stadium that had been quickly constructed for the match. Johnson won, but deadly race riots ensued, as angry whites took out their frustrations on blacks, especially those who had celebrated Johnson’s victory.


[Editor’s Note: The AR essay “Whitewashing Jack Johnson” can be read here.]